capsule review

AMD Radeon HD 6970: Efficient and Affordable

At a Glance
  • AMD Radeon HD 6970

    PCWorld Rating

    It may not top the charts, but AMD’s Radeon HD 6970 delivers an excellent value.

AMD's Radeon HD 6970 ($370, as of 12/14/2010) marks the debut of their "Cayman" GPU, offering significant architectural changes stemming from the Radeon HD 5800 series, and their recently launched Radeon HD 6800 series.

This marks a departure from AMD's traditional approach to their higher-end graphics cards -- namely, releasing a card containing two of their existing GPUs, as seen with the Radeon HD 5970. Enhancements abound, with a pair of "front end" graphics engines designed to improve performance in geometry-intensive applications, as well as a re-tooled shader architecture, and PowerTune technology, that aims to throttle the card's performance if it starts to exceed its thermal boundaries.

For the full overview of the new architecture and its changes, be sure to check out Jason Cross' exhaustive deep dive.

The $370 Radeon HD 6970's closest competitor is Nvidia's GeForce GTX 570, a $350 graphics card released just last week. The 6970 is being released alongside the $300 Radeon HD 6950. For comparison's sake, we've also included Nvidia's $500 GeForce GTX 580 -- the fastest single-GPU card available today.

Performance: Synthetic Benchmarks

As always, synthetic benchmarks aren't necessarily indicative of a GPU's real-world performance. But they do give us a general overview of how the card will perform in a series of forward-looking tests (click on a chart to see a larger version).

In Futuremark's DirectX 10 based 3DMark Vantage benchmark, AMD's card fell behind both of Nvidia's high-end offerings.

On 3DMark's High setting (1680-by-1050 pixel resolution), the 6970 lagged behind the GTX 570 by as much as 8%, while Nvidia's GTX 580 pulled a commanding 27% lead.

The Radeon HD 6970 fares better on the Extreme benchmarks (1920-by-1200 pixel resolution), with the gap between it and the GTX 570 closing to 5% (in Nvidia's favor).

The GTX 580 sits ahead by 22% -- a fair margin, but mitigated somewhat by the GTX 580's $500 price tag.

The situation improves in the recently released DirectX 11 based 3DMark 11.

The Radeon HD 6970 manages to pull ahead of the GTX 570 on the Extreme setting by 5%. It still lags behind the GTX 580, but only by 10%.

The card manages to close the gap at higher resolutions, thanks in part to its 2GB of DDR5 memory, as compared to the GTX 500 series' 1.5GB.

Performance: Games

The card's performance in real-world gaming scenarios is a bit less clear cut. For our tests we pitted the GPUs against a pack of demanding DirectX 10 and 11 based games, and the Radeon HD 6970 proved to be a serious contender.

In Codemasters' Foromula 1 racer F1 2010, the Radeon HD 6970 makes an impressive showing.

Edging out the GTX 570 on all of our tests, it even managed to stay competitive with (and occasionally outpace) the pricier GTX 580.

The "Cayman" GPU's architectural improvements shine here, and gamers with large, high-resolution displays stand to benefit from the 6970's excellent performance.

Nvidia's GTX 580 topped the strenuous Just Cause 2 "Concrete Jungle" benchmark test, but AMD's Radeon HD 6970 was never far behind. That's fairly impressive, considering the difference in price.

As we saw in the synthetic benchmarks, the card fares better at higher resolutions.

The GTX 580 and 570 maintain a strong lead at the 1920-by-1200 resolution, but that gap dries up once the resolution is dialed up to the 2560-by-1600 pixel resolution.

Value and Efficiency

Power utilization becomes rather demanding on the enthusiast end of the GPU market. To weigh the overall efficiency of these cards, we took the average frames per second of all of our game tests, and divided by their power use under load.

Nvidia's wares are generally rather power hungry, and while the revamped Fermi architecture made impressive strides towards taming their appetites, AMD's offerings remain the more power efficient of the pack -- particularly at the higher resolutions.

With a $20 price difference between the GTX 570 and the Radeon HD 6970, it becomes prudent to look at things from a broader perspective.

We collect the average benchmark results for all of our game tests, and then divide by their price tags to determine the Dollars per Frames per Second. Lower is better here, and the $500 GTX 580 is included primarily as a reference point.

The $350 GTX 570 ultimately edges out the Radeon HD 6970 as the better buy, where raw performance is concerned -- especially if you aren't fortunate enough to own a 30-inch, 2560-by-1600 resolution display.

But there are a few caveats in AMD's favor. The 6970 offers a better range of display options, serving up a pair of mini DisplayPort 1.2 connectors, a pair DVI connectors, and an HDMI 1.4a connector. Nvidia's cards only offer a pair of DVI ports, and an HDMI port. And AMD's oft-touted Eyefinity technology will also allow you to run up to three displays off a single card, a feat that Nvidia can't match. And then there's power efficiency, if you're watching your electric bill.

All told, that $20 difference becomes a trade-off between eking out those last few frames on your graphically intensive games, or having a bit more versatility in your display options. Nvidia keeps the performance crown, but the Radeon HD 6970 offers up an impressive, well-rounded value that's tough to beat.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    It may not top the charts, but AMD’s Radeon HD 6970 delivers an excellent value.

    Pros

    • Strong Price to Performance Ratio
    • Excellent feature set

    Cons

    • Outpaced by its competition
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